Voters kill TCHS renovation plan

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23-vote difference separates supporters, opponents

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - Voters in the Tell City-Troy Township school district said no Tuesday to a proposal to make up to $10 million in improvements to Tell City High School.

The second attempt by the school board and superintendent to launch renovations intended to correct what they've called decades of neglect was defeated by a 23-point difference among the 1,521 votes cast.

"I've never been so disappointed in my community than I am right now," said Joan Hess, one of the handful of people who waited in the county-courthouse lobby for ballots to be delivered and counted.

Tallying of the paper ballots used to avoid the costs associated with voting machines took some time, County Clerk Jean Schulthise said Wednesday, because "we just knew it was extremely tight" and "with an election that close, we wanted to be really careful." Polls closed at 6 p.m. and results were posted in the commissioners room at approximately 8:30 p.m.

One hundred of the 749 votes cast in favor of the work were tallied at the Veterans of Foreign Wars polling site on Main Street, where dissenting votes numbered 70. Votes were closer at the fire station on Humboldt Street, where 61 voters supported the renovations and 57 opposed them. Eight votes separated the opinions in each of Tell City's 3rd and 4th precincts, who voted at City Hall and Schergens Center, respectively.

A 23-point difference where the proposal's opponents prevailed was registered in Tell City's 5th Precinct, whose residents cast ballots at the Moose Lodge on Dauby Lane. Sixth Precinct voters casting ballots at the Senior Citizens Center voted 68 to 58 against the project, and a 60-60 tie emerged from the Twilight Towers voting site for Precinct 7. Increasingly larger margins opposed the work, from an 11-voter difference in Tell City's 8th Precinct, to a 15-vote margin in Troy Township 1 and 17 in Troy Township 2. The largest margin was registered in Troy, where opponents outnumbered supporters 34 to seven.

Schools Superintendent Ron Etienne had hoped to apply for up to $10 million in interest-free stimulus money to cover the project, which he said could have saved the district's residents $7 million in interest over the life of bonds funding the work.

An earlier proposal estimated at approximately $16.5 million was killed through a public remonstrance in 2007. Smaller projects have been funded since then through interest-free U.S. Department of Education qualified zone academy bonds.

Some groups and individuals openly supported the renovations by sending out letters with their names, and in one case, phone numbers, or expressing themselves through letters to the editor of this newspaper. No evidence of organized opposition surfaced until late last week, when unsigned green post cards were sent to some area addresses urging voters to "vote no new taxes."

"The Tell City-Troy Township School Corp. has spent an estimated $12 million for renovations in recent years," the covert opponents' card said. "Now they want an additional $10 million! They didn't tell you this referendum will allow property taxes to exceed Indiana state tax caps."

Etienne said Wednesday the definition of "recent years" is questionable, but "the corporation has spent $8 million in the last several years, and $6 million of that was spent before the remonstrance."

The News reported in at least three stories that legislation enacted last year began setting caps, called circuit breakers, on the amount of property tax a home or business owner has to bear, and that large construction projects such as this one have to be approved by voters.

Where they're approved, the cost of funding such a project is considered to be outside the circuit breakers.   

Etienne said Tuesday afternoon if voters didn't approve the work that remains to be done, "we may do more QZABs; we'll have to sit back and regroup a little while."